Watchkeeping is not just about ensuring you avoid collisions, it is about ensuring the boat is safe, the gear is working properly and the person off watch is sleeping well.
To truly enjoy ocean passages, this is imperative. But getting to sleep on a boat that is bouncing across a tradewind sea can be difficult.
Join Lin Pardey as she describes a few of the tips that have helped her and those she has sailed with, sleep well in all kinds of weather. For as she makes clear, a well-rested crew makes better decisions, stays healthier and is far easier to live with.
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Night Watch Tips for Two handed Crews
Last week another relatively new-to-cruising couple stopped by for a visit.
“Did you really keep watches every night at sea, even when you were out in the middle of nowhere?”
In reply, I related the story of almost running down another yacht in squally weather 400 miles from New Zealand. The other yacht had no running lights and disaster was averted when someone came out into their cockpit and lit a cigarette.
When I look back through our years of voyaging, I can recall several dozen night-time incidents that could have had negative consequences if we hadn’t been keeping a watch, weather changes, squalls, ships that were on the same course as we were, a line on the foredeck that was chafing. Just as important, knowing Larry was alert and keeping watch, let me sleep soundly.
A well-rested crew makes better decisions and enjoys sailing more. Herewith just a few watchkeeping tips:
- We do a check on deck and around the horizon every eleven minutes. To keep us from getting too involved in the book we may be reading we have a watch-watch, a count-down alarm that flashes and sounds off every eleven minutes. (We came up with this number by timing ships coming directly toward us from the time we could just spot them until they were abeam of us. This averaged more than eleven minutes.)
- A look around on deck means going out on deck, well clear of cockpit obstructions and dodgers.
- As tempting as it is to enjoy music or recorded books, any device that uses earplugs also keeps you from hearing what is going on inside and outside the boat.
- Allow time for the person coming on watch to wake fully. Give them a rundown on any information that could help them assess the situation before they take over. Larry got a real fright when I didn’t inform him we’d just passed a huge oil drilling barge that was under tow 800 miles off the Brazilian coast. He went on deck, still slightly groggy and couldn’t immediately process the overwhelming wall of lights just off our stern, nor could he figure out which way the very slow tow was moving. Instead, instinct made him think we were in danger. His shout brought me out of my bunk so I lost far more sleep time than I would have had I had taken the time to point out what was happening, show him my plotted course and that of the barge.
- It is the watch keeper’s job to check for and silence any sounds that could disturb the off-watch. Search out clinking bottles or shifting pots and pans. I carry a bag full of sponges to stuff between bottles, cans, and pans to shut them up.
- If there is any way for the on-watch to leave the helm—whether by leaving steering to the windvane or by tying the helm for a few moments—it pays to take a stroll through the boat past sleeping crew at least every hour. This seems to subconsciously reassure the sleeper that all is well. The watch-stander can also take this opportunity to check for wayward pots, pans, and rattles.
- The captain who doesn’t quite trust his crew is rarely going to get enough rest. So take time before each voyage to be sure each person on board knows basic sailing and emergency procedures. Let it be known that calling the captain on deck when something looks amiss is the right thing to do. When we delivered a 60-foot ketch across the Atlantic, I just didn’t like the look of some dark clouds forming up astern of us. Though Larry had just crawled into the bunk a halfhour earlier, I called him up. His second opinion made us decide to drop all sail except for the jib, even though we only had about 15 knots of wind. Twenty minutes later, the clouds covered us and we roared along in a 30-knot squall, perfectly canvased. The rest of the crew never woke. Larry returned to his bunk with these last words: “Call me up anytime you have doubts. Sure was easier to shorten down before that one hit.” If you can impress on your whole crew the fact that it’s easier to handle situations before they’re all-hands-on-deck affairs, everyone will sleep better.
- Nothing helps the person coming off watch fall asleep faster than climbing into a dry, warm sleeping bag. Work to keep it that way. If it has been a wet watch, dry yourself thoroughly before you climb into the bunk. Wash any saltwater off your hands, face, and feet before you slide between the sheets, or you’ll soon have a clammy, salty bunk.